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Bush’s New Policy Czar Brings Humor, Command of Details to Job

May 9, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Joel Kaplan, President Bush’s new policy czar, brings to his job a disciplined adherence to the White House message. Bush last month named Kaplan, 36, as deputy chief of staff in charge of day-to-day policy after deciding that his closest adviser, Karl Rove, needed to focus more on upcoming congressional elections. With Bush’s public support plummeting in opinion polls, Republicans face the real prospect of losing one or both houses of Congress in November.

Kaplan’s reputation after three years as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget was of someone able to simultaneously handle the big picture and master details — qualities that made him a good fit for one of the most grueling jobs in the administration.

“I tell everyone that you really have to have your stuff together before you go and meet with” Kaplan, said Tevi Troy, a senior adviser to Bush who was the White House liaison to the Jewish community until 2003. “He has a reputation for brilliance and really getting to the heart of the matter.”

Kaplan seemed both a natural choice for the policy job and something of a mystery. It seemed natural enough for Joshua Bolten, Bush’s new chief of staff, to bring over his most trusted aide from the Office of Management and Budget, where Bolten had been director. Bolten, who also is Jewish, recited the Sheva Brachot, traditional Jewish blessings, at Kaplan’s wedding earlier this year at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

On the other hand, Kaplan was an unknown quantity — unlike Bolten, who was known for his friendly relations with Congress and his onetime dalliance with Hollywood star Bo Derek.

Kaplan has made his presence felt in the new post with an easygoing manner.

“He has a lot of energy, a good sense of humor,” said Jay Zeidman, the White House Jewish liaison.

That sense of humor sometimes gets a little goofy.

In a January 2004 online session of “Ask the White House” on the topic of the budget, Kaplan showed an apt hand with statistics and projections, answering a question in heavy policy-wonk jargon.

Yet when someone asked Kaplan about his resemblance to Peter Frampton, he immediately posted a photo of the 1970s rock icon and said he had just bought a shirt like the silk number Frampton is wearing in the picture.

“As for my favorite Frampton song — I would go with ‘Show me the Way’ or ‘Day in the Sun,’ ” he added.

Friends say the humor leavens a deeply serious side. A Boston native, Kaplan interrupted his academic trajectory between a 1991 Harvard undergraduate degree and a 1998 Harvard Law School degree to serve three years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Marines.

“The key tenets of honor and courage and commitment were attractive to him,” said Nigel Jones, who has known Kaplan since ninth grade and served in the Marines with him.

Jones said Kaplan wanted to break away for a while from his middle-class upbringing in suburban Boston, where he attended Sunday school at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass.

“We were graduates of liberal arts schools from the Northeast, a Jewish guy and a black guy,” said Jones, who now is a partner in a venture capital firm in the Washington area. “It was not your typical demographic, which is why we both did it — to get out of our comfort zone.”

Old friends say Kaplan’s seriousness stems in part from his Jewish commitment. Kaplan maintained his connection to his faith even while leading patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border or fighting wildfires in Washington state.

“We spoke about religion on a number of occasions,” said Brian O’Leary, who trained in artillery with Kaplan in Oklahoma and now is a money manager in New Jersey. “He’s very astute with respect to his own faith.”

Kaplan participates avidly in White House Jewish events, seeking out the rabbi in attendance on Sukkot to fulfill the mitzvah of the lulav and etrog. Most recently, he spoke at the executive office’s private Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

“He spoke eloquently and thoughtfully” Zeidman said. “He carried the message of the importance of never forgetting.”

Jones said Kaplan’s Judaism is an essential part of his worldview.

“His core values are very much rooted in, as he terms it, the Judeo-Christian ethos, respect for the individual, respect for truth, honesty and loyalty,” he said.

Such high-mindedness doesn’t mean Kaplan lacks a fiercely competitive streak.

“He’s a Red Sox fan, and I’m a Yankees fan. That’s good fodder for arguments and debates,” O’Leary said.

Kaplan won a fitness award in the Marines that O’Leary had hoped to nab.

“It pains me to remember this, but I lost a beer in a bet over that one,” he said.

Jones said Kaplan worked hard even when he didn’t have to.

“Joel would come into the homeroom on the day of a history exam and ask me a few questions about the exam,” as if he hadn’t prepared, Jones recalled. “Then a few weeks later the teacher would hold up his exam as an example of how it should be done.”

Kaplan was reported to be among a large group of Bush supporters who helped bring about a stop to the Florida recount in 2000 when they stormed a room in a local government building. In his Senate confirmation hearings in 2003, Kaplan said he was there but, as far as he recalled, was not a participant in the incident.

Whatever his role, he maintained his famous wit: It’s Kaplan who is believed to have labelled the incident the “Brooks Brothers Uprising,” referring to the business attire of many of the protesters.

JTA Washington intern David J. Silverman contributed to this report.

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